Once We Insisted On Civility: Reflections on Tucson

At the dawn of the broadcasting era, the government declared that the airwaves belonged to the public and fashioned rules to protect the public interest. Broadcasters paid no money for their licenses; in return license renewals depended on whether the station served the public interest. Broadcasters were “public trustees.” As the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), forerunner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), explained, “It is as if people of a community should own a station and turn it over to the best man in sight with this injunction: ‘Manage this station in our interest.’”

The Commission made clear there was no room for “propaganda stations”.

In 1930, the FRC made concrete what it meant by public interest by denying a license renewal to a Los Angeles station used primarily to broadcast sermons that attacked Jews, Roman Catholic church officials, and law enforcement agencies

In 1949, the FCC introduced what later became known as the Fairness Doctrine. Coverage of issues “must be fair in the sense that it provides an opportunity for the presentation of contrasting points of view.” In 1974 the FCC called the fairness doctrine “the single most important requirement of operation in the public interest.”

In 1981 Ronald Reagan came to power, famously declaring in his inaugural address “government is the problem.” His FCC demonized the fairness doctrine and ruled that the marketplace would decide what was in the public interest. If the audience wanted venom and imbalance, government should not intervene.

The impact was immediate and transformative. For decades call-in talk radio had to comply with the FCC’s fairness rules. A few months after the FCC abolished those rules, Rush Limbaugh’s program, with its in-your-face attitude and one-sided perspective, was syndicated. Within four years, over six hundred stations were carrying it—the fastest spread of any talk show in history. The marketplace had spoken. Incivility sells. Others imitated Limbaugh’s format. The number of radio talk stations more than doubled from 1987 to 1993.

In 1993, the Democrats took back the White House and introduced a bill to revive the fairness doctrine. Conservative talk radio hosts whipped up a popular frenzy, calling the bill a liberal strategy to curb free speech. The Democratic Congress, as is its tragic wont, deserted the battlefield. The bill never came up for a vote.

Today stripped of all rules requiring decency and fairness, talk radio has become hate radio. Together with a similarly unrestrained Fox News, aided and amplified by the internet, incivility and hatred has infected the general culture. Public threats of violence are becoming the norm.

In the first three months of 2010, members of Congress reported 42 cases of threats or violence, nearly three times the number reported during the same period a year earlier. In March 2010, MSNBC informed its viewers, “ Reports of death threats, vandalism, and harassment by Tea Party activists have Democrats on edge as they’re preparing to head home for their spring recess.” The story specifically discussed one Congresswoman’s fear of assassination—Gabrielle Giffords.

We are the only civilized country that doesn’t make hate speech a crime. That, coupled with our unique insistence that the highest form of liberty is the right to carry guns in public, is proving an increasingly lethal combination.

Once upon a time we required those who engage in mass communication to practice self-restraint and promote decent public discourse. That is no longer true. We can talk all we want about the need to regain a sense of civility, but civility will reappear only when we demand it.

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.